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Pipelines are no job for Canada’s politicians

Patricia Kelly, of the Sto:lo First Nation, chants and beats a drum during a protest outside National Energy Board hearings on the proposed Trans Mountain pipeline expansion in Burnaby, B.C., on Tuesday January 19, 2016. The proposed $5-billion expansion would nearly triple the capacity of the pipeline that carries crude oil from near Edmonton to the Vancouver area to be loaded on tankers and shipped overseas. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

DARRYL DYCK/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Mayors in Western Canada are duelling on the virtues and vices of oil pipelines, more particularly on the Trans Mountain pipeline proposed by Kinder Morgan Inc. Mayor Gregor Robertson of Vancouver is leading an entourage to Ottawa to argue, and lobby, against Trans Mountain. Mayor Naheed Nenshi of Calgary, for his part, has come to its defence, criticizing Mr. Robertson for "scaring people using numbers completely out of context or based on no facts at all. This kind of political interference is not in fact helpful."

The thing is, neither of these mayors is an expert on the economics, engineering and environmental consequences of any particular pipeline. They can't be. It's not their job.

The National Energy Board, on the other hand, has been studying and regulating oil and gas projects and electric utilities since 1959. The federal cabinet can ultimately overrule the NEB, ask for reconsideration of any issue – or accept its decisions. An NEB decision is a recommendation to the cabinet, not a final decree. But the government tends to take the NEB's advice, and should, because the cabinet cannot ever have as much expertise on the merits of a particular project as the NEB, which holds lengthy hearings and reviews mountains of documents.

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On Trans Mountain, the NEB has given its approval, subject to 157 conditions. The conditions set for Trans Mountain are fewer than the 209 for the now languishing Northern Gateway project of Enbridge Inc., perhaps because Gateway's route to the Pacific is more difficult than Trans Mountain's. Much of the latter project is on a pre-existing route, in parallel to an actually working pipeline.

The motive of the federal Liberal government in appointing a second, 11th-hour, three-person panel to review Trans Mountain, and then report in November, is hard to glean. What can be gained from another, shorter study? Will it help build consensus in favour of a project the NEB has approved, or undermine it? It invites the thought that the government is hedging its bets, looking to see where the wind will be blowing in a few months, and what will turn up later.

The best course of action would be for the Trudeau government to design what it believes is a robust, independent pipeline review process – and leave it to that process to decide what gets built and what doesn't. Let the NEB, in its current or modified form, do the months of hearings and research, and let it make the call. Get ministers, premiers and mayors out of the business of having to pretend they're qualified pipeline regulators.

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